What Have We Learned So Far?

The NBA preseason is a strange time.  Fun though it is to see NBA games back on our screens, it often proves to be the case that what happens in October stays in October, which is to say that it doesn't translate to the regular season.  Veteran players might appear to be in a slump or have lost a step, only to be in mid-season form once the games that count have arrived.  Youngsters or new additions come in and look like they might contribute, then never manage to get off the bench during the regular season.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule.  For example, in 2007, anyone who saw the Celtics first couple of preseason games in Europe could sense a changing attitude and newfound confidence from the outset and - once you got past that "this is too good to be true" vibe - it was obvious they were going to come flying out of the gates when the season began.

More often than not, though, it seems that preseason tends to throw up a series of red herrings.  Many of the established players are more concerned with going through the motions to get in shape and prepare for the season, whereas others are fighting for roster spots and treating every possession like it could be their last.  As a result, projecting anything based on preseason is increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

As long as we all know this, we can look at what has happened so far and try to determine what this might mean for the upcoming season without taking ourselves too seriously.

The recap is more important than the boxscore

It's funny, but while this team was rebuilding, the first thing I would look at after a game would be the boxscore.  You knew what you were going to get from Paul Pierce and the Battle Tested Veterans, so the important thing was whether Big Al was productive, Delonte had more turnovers than assists or how long it took Perk to foul out.

Now they have a complete team, the headliners are the key factor.  Are they shooting the ball well, still capable of taking over games and - most importantly - staying healthy?  The boxscore doesn't tell you any of that, but these are the things that will make or break this season and beyond.

So far this year, it seems that Pierce is looking spry and Kevin Garnett is working his way back towards full-fitness and what I've seen of the games reinforces this.  I won't lie though, even when following a game on Gamecast, I still find myself wincing whenever Garnett draws a foul or grabs a rebound, as I wonder whether he re-tweaked that knee/calf/whatever.  One can only imagine how tentative he himself feels.

Player X will not contribute much during the early part of the season

A look back at recent Celtics history tells us that the likes of Kedrick Brown, Bruno Sundov and, more recently, Patrick O'Bryant performed well enough in preseason that fans were hoping they would be early contributors.  This just underlines how misleading preseason games can be.  Even Rajon Rondo, who tore it up in his first preseason and was being called a rookie of the year candidate by Bill Simmons (and others), barely saw the floor early in his rookie season.

The Rondo case does highlight the fact that we shouldn't disregard preseason success either, though.  Positive preseason contributions from young players can be a good sign of things to come, it just might take longer than you think.

So, while Lester Hudson has looked impressive at times and JR Giddens broke out with his 13-rebound effort the other night, we must remember that they both have a long way to go to crack the rotation...especially when many of the veteran players are deliberately not firing on all cylinders yet.  Despite this, it is good to see development from some of the younger guys (notwithstanding the fact that Hudson is older than Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo and that Giddens is also older than Davis and Rondo.)

If they get rid of Player Y, he may or may not go on to have success elsewhere (but it probably doesn't matter)

In recent years, the Celtics have released the likes of Will Bynum, Darius Miles and Dahntay Jones in preseason.  Bynum is now one of Detroit's best reserves, Miles "exploded" for three double-digit scoring games in January and Jones played impressively enough over the past two years to entice Larry Bird to sign him to a 4 year, $11m contract.

Any of these three could probably have helped the Celtics, especially last year when their depth was crumbling in the postseason, but the fact is that they wouldn't have had many opportunities to play had they stayed on the roster and therefore might not have been able to contribute as readily as they were on a team with less depth, where they would be afforded a better opportunity to get more reps with the first unit and work their way into game shape.

This year, it looks likely that Mike Sweetney is going to be the odd man out, despite the fact he has shown some decent moves in the low post and even led the Celtics in scoring in their opener.  Clearly still overweight, he might well end up on a lesser team and make some decent contributions during the season, but there would be little to be gained by keeping him on the Celtics roster, other than to deflect fat jokes away from Davis and Brian Scalabrine.  At the end of the day, for every Bynum, Miles or Jones, there's an Esteban Batista or Kevin Pittsnogle.

Player Z is still going to be the same as he ever was

As noted above, many veteran players will coast through the preseason and then step it up a notch when the real action gets underway.  This is where some younger guys, who had been giving it their all, often get left in the dust.

A minor exception would again be 2007, where the Celtics played with such intensity during the preseason that they steamrolled through the early part of their schedule because it evidently takes a few "real" games for NBA teams to become "fully operational", whereas the Celtics were already at that level.

For example, it's not a concern that Ray Allen missed some free throws the other night.  He'll shoot the same high percentage that he always does once the season starts.  

Similarly, Rajon Rondo's lack of production is not really a concern either.  His preseason numbers may have been better in his rookie year, but he was trying harder then and is clearly a better player now.  This time round, it's obvious he is pacing himself and is still capable of stepping it up, as he showed when Pierce, Garnett and Allen sat out the Nets game the other night.  As long as his effort is consistent once the season actually begins, he should continue on the path towards being a legitimate NBA superstar and earning himself some serious coin in the process.

What's different this year is that the Celtics have some new additions that will be expected to contribute right away because they are established veterans.  On the basis of what we've seen so far, Rasheed Wallace, ankle injury aside, certainly looks like he will still be capable of being productive.  Marquis Daniels has been inconsistent, but deserves a pass because he was ill over the last few days.  The Celtics hope they know what Daniels can bring to the table.  Veteran additions have joined the club before and never found their niche (e.g. Dan Dickau or Jumaine Jones), but Daniels should have an important role with this team and is coming off a career year statistically, so he will have time to find his feet.

Depth is important, but is more of a factor after the all-star break

While the starting five is unlikely to change, what impacted the team last year was their lack of depth.  With Garnett, Powe, Tony Allen and Scalabrine all injured, Pierce, Ray Allen, Perkins and Rondo had to play substantial minutes during the postseason and it was clear that this wore them out, to various degrees.  Glen Davis had to play huge minutes and the bench basically consisted of Eddie House, Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury (with Tony Allen and Scalabrine contributing where possible.)

Fast-forward to the current line-up and you now have Garnett healthy again, instantly upgrading the starting line-up, especially defensively.  That moves Davis to the bench, which is also bolstered by the addition of Wallace and Daniels.  Wallace is also expected to contribute down the stretch in close games.  The likes of Tony Allen and Scalabrine are relegated to garbage time or emergency duty (if that) and Moore and Marbury are surplus to requirements.  Even allowing for a similar slate of injuries, the Celtics are better conditioned to cope with the rigors of a full season, especially at that power forward position, and that's before any deadline moves are made to further strengthen the roster.

Preseason has reinforced this hope, so far.  When you look at the contributions of the guys who weren't even available during last year's playoffs and then realize that the nucleus of the team that came with one game of the Eastern Conference Finals is wholly unaffected and maybe even in better physical shape than they were six months ago, there is reason for optimism.  Glen Davis, in particular, has been working hard to continue to improve and has been a productive option off the bench, where many had forecast he would fade into the background with the addition of Wallace and Garnett's return.  Even Shelden Williams has shown signs of being a solid bench contributor when called upon, not just in preseason, but over the past few years.

If Giddens, Hudson and (the injured) Bill Walker can reach a point where they can be relied upon to contribute too, this team will have even more extra options compared to last year.  Preseason isn't going to tell us that, but they will hopefully get some chances to prove themselves with the season underway.

So, what have we learned so far?  NOTHING!  It's been a heckuva lot more fun than before the preseason began, though.  Bring on the real season!
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